St. Paul federal jury convicts all 5 on trial in Thai sex trafficking case

December 13, 2018 GMT

A federal jury in St. Paul has convicted all five people charged with conspiring to traffic hundreds of Thai women for sex, siding with prosecutors who alleged during a six-week trial that they and 34 other co-conspirators ran a lucrative business that spanned more than a decade and crossed international borders.

Jurors returned guilty verdicts on all counts Wednesday afternoon, a little less than a day after receiving the case following six weeks of trial. Two waves of defendants from across the country were charged in the case, beginning in Oct. 2016 and again in May 2017. All but five pleaded guilty to avoid trial.

Prosecutors described the case as modern day sex slavery and argued that the defendants forced Thai women to work long hours having sex with multiple men daily to pay off bondage debts owed to traffickers for help coming to the United States. Prosecutors said victims, some of whom testified during the trial, were misled as to how much they truly owed and were threatened if they tried to leave the business.

Convicted on Wednesday was Michael Morris, aka Uncle Bill, 65, of Seal Beach, Calif.; Pawinee Unpradit, aka Fon, 46, of Dallas; Saowapha Thinram, aka Nancy or Kung, 44, of Hutto, Texas; Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, aka Noiy, 35, of Chicago; and Waralee Wanless, aka Wan, 39, of Colony, Texas.

All five were found guilty of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, conspiracy to use transportation for prostitution, conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy to use a communication facility such as phone or internet to promote prostitution. Morris was also convicted of an additional charge of sex trafficking by use of force, threats of force, fraud and coercion.

Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank later thanked the audience both government and defense for listening to the verdicts dispassionately, saying I know there are very strong feelings after such a long trial.

Robert Sicoli, Morris attorney, said Wednesday that he was somewhat shocked, especially by the speed of the verdict given the trials length and amount of evidence to consider.

The U.S. Attorneys Office and other federal authorities will address reporters late Wednesday.

Paul Engh, an attorney for Thinram, predicted that all five defendants will appeal following the verdicts.

Deeply disappointed, Engh said. We thought we had a great shot at it. Everyone will appeal.

Sicoli said 95 percent of the governments case turned on whether women were coerced into having sex for money and defense attorneys for all five insisted that the women were willful participants in selling themselves for sex, pointing to examples of women sending earnings back home to help family and staying in the business well after paying down their debts.

Stephen Montemayor 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor